Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/March 1873/Epileptic Origin of Islamism

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DR. J.C. HOWDEN, medical superintendent of the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, recently read an able paper before the Edinburgh Medico-Psychological Association on the mental condition of epileptics in relation to the religious sentiment. He states that these patients manifest the strangest mental contradictions. Irritability, suspicion, impulsive violence, egotism, and strong homicidal propensities, are among the most commonly-observed characteristics in the insane epileptic; but these traits are very frequently combined with strong devotional feeling, manifested in simple piety or in decided religious delusions. Dr. Howden has the following remarks on the peculiar mental characteristics of epileptics:

"The mysterious nature of the disease—the consciousness of infirmity and helplessness—develops a craving for sympathy in the epileptic which we rarely see in other lunatics. In the wards and airing-courts of our asylums, epileptics may be distinguished from their fellow-patients by the fact that they are generally found associating in little groups of twos or threes. They sympathize with each other, lean on each other for help in the time of trouble, and, however much they exhibit violence and viciousness to others, they rarely attack each other. Along with this desire for sympathy, the epileptic is mercifully endowed with strong hope. He is always getting over his trouble, he thinks the turns are less severe, and will tell you, perhaps the day before a fatal seizure, that he thinks he will have no more fits. We all know how much hope has helped the physician in his efforts to combat this disease with a whole battery of drugs, each of which in its turn seems for a time to promise success, only too surely to fail in the end. This craving for sympathy finds a deep response in the highest development of hope—religion; and the sufferings of this life are assuaged by the assurance of sympathy and aid from Heaven, and of a blessed future where suffering and sorrow are no more.

"Again, when religious emotion develops itself in delusions, another element of character comes into play. Vanity and egotism give shape and form to his dreams and fancies. When cut off by sleep or epileptic trance from communication with the outer world through the senses, the ever-waking mind operates on the stores which memory has hoarded, and works up those wonderful visions in which the most exaggerated egotism find gratification in interviews with the Almighty, direct communications with the Saviour, or revelations as to the salvations of the human race."

Several remarkable instances are related in which devout feeling, offering the strongest evidences of genuineness, coexisted with the most dangerous forms of homicidal violence. A young man, aged twenty-seven, subject to irregular epileptic fits, read his Bible attentively, and showed a strongly devotional frame of mind. While in the asylum, he wrote a very earnest letter to the clergyman of the village church, asking to be permitted to partake of the sacrament, and was allowed to do so; "yet only a few weeks afterward he nearly killed a fellow-patient—a poor, demented creature—because he called him a Fenian, and his conduct continues to this day a singular jumble of piety and vice.

"When actual religious delusions are present in epileptics, these are generally founded on visions occurring during a state of trance, but sometimes, as in the following case, the delusion continues after the memory of the vision on which it was founded has faded. The case is curious, not only from the nature of the delusions, but from the fact that the subject of them was a boy only thirteen years old, and epileptic from infancy. On admission to the asylum he spoke with an earnestness, and, granting his premises, and intelligence beyond his years. When questioned as to his previous life in the Garden of Eden, he replied that he had been so long dead that he could not be expected to recall particulars, but added that it was perfectly true that he had eaten the forbidden fruit, and when asked why he had done so, he replied: 'It's all very well to blame me; but you would just have done the same thing if you had been in my place.' He pointed to a picture of a woman on the wall, which he said was the portrait of Eve. He says he has been in heaven, and describes what he saw there. He takes fits every two or three weeks, and on recovering from them he is dull and stupid; then he becomes possessed of some extravagant delusions, always of a religious nature. Sometimes he returns to his old delusion that he is Adam, sometimes he is God, at other times Christ, and not unfrequently the devil. When questioned as to the ground of his belief, he generally says that it has been revealed to him, and that he feels that it is true, pointing with his finger to his epigastrium.

After describing a variety of cases of trances, visions, and religious delusions, occurring in the epileptic, Dr. Howden remarks that these and like cases naturally suggest the inquiry as to how far epilepsy has had to do with the origin of certain religious creeds, and how far the visions of the many so-called religious impostors may have had an epileptic origin.

"There is evidence that many religious fanatics were epileptics or cataleptics. Hecker, describing the dancing mania of the fourteenth century, says: 'While dancing, they neither saw nor heard, being insensible to external impressions through the senses, but were haunted by visions, their fancies conjuring up spirits, whose names they shrieked out. . . . Others, during the paroxysm, saw the heavens open, and the Saviour enthroned with the Virgin Mary, according as the religious notions of the age were strangely and variously reflected in their imaginations. "Where the disease was completely developed, the attack commenced with epileptic convulsions. Those affected fell to the ground senseless, panting and laboring for breath. They foamed at the mouth, and, suddenly springing up, began their dance amid strange contortions.'

"Ann Lee, the mother of the Shakers, is described as 'a wild creature from birth, a prey to hysteria and convulsions, violent in her conduct, ambitious of notice, and devoured by the lust of power.' "While in the prison at Manchester a light shone upon her, and the Lord Jesus stood before her in the cell, and became one with her in form and spirit. A writer says: 'A combination of bodily disease—perhaps catalepsy—and religious excitement appears to have produced in her the most distressing consequences. During the spasms and convulsions into which she occasionally was thrown, her person was dreadfully distorted, and she would clinch her hands until the blood oozed through the pores of her skin. She continued so long in these fits that her flesh and strength wasted away, and she required to be fed, and was nursed like an infant.'"

There is strong evidence that Mohammed was an epileptic, and that, though a man of undoubted power and strong religious feeling, he founded his pretensions as a medium of revelation on visions which appeared to him during epileptic trances. Washington Irving, in his "Life of Mohammed,"' says:

"Dr. Gustav Weil, in a note to 'Mahommed der Prophet,' discusses the question of Mohammed's being subject to attacks of epilepsy, which has generally been represented as a slander of his enemies and of Christian writers. It appears, however, to have been asserted by some of the oldest Moslem biographers, and given on the authority of persons about him. He would be seized, they said, with violent trembling, followed by a kind of swoon, or rather convulsion, during which perspiration would stream from his forehead in the coldest weather; he would lie with his eyes closed, foaming at the mouth, and bellowing like a young camel. Ayesha, one of his wives, and Zeid, one of his disciples, are among the persons cited as testifying to that effect. They considered him at such times as under the influence of a revelation. He had such attacks, however, in Mecca, before the Koran was revealed to him. Cadijah feared that he was possessed by evil spirits, and would have called in the aid of a conjurer to exorcise them, but he forbade her. He did not like that any one should see him during these paroxysms. His visions, however, were not always preceded by such attacks. Hareth Ibn Haschem, it is said, once asked him in what manner the revelations were made. 'Often,' replied he, 'the angel appears to me in a human form and speaks to me. Sometimes I hear sounds like the tinkling of a bell, but see nothing.' (A ringing in the ears is a symptom of epilepsy.) When the invisible angel has departed, I am possessed of what he has revealed.' Some of the revelations he professed to receive direct from God, others in dreams; for the dreams of prophets, he used to say, are revelations."

Bayle says ("Dictionnaire Historique et Critique," article "Mohammed") that he was subject to the mal cadue (epilepsy), and that he tried to make his wife Cadijah believe that "he only fell into convulsions because he could not sustain the glory of the appearance of the angel" Gabriel, who came to announce many things from God concerning religion.

The following passage is quoted by Moreau (de Tours) from "Gisbert Voctins:"

"Non video cur hoc negandum sit (epilepsia et maniacis deliriis aut enthusiasmis diabolicis Mahommedi ad fuisse energema) si vitami et actiones ejus intueamur." "I do not see how it can be denied (that the fanaticism of Mohammed arose from the maniacal delirium or diabolic enthusiasm of epilepsy), if we look carefully into his life and actions."[1] The inhabitants of Mecca considered him to be a madman and possessed, and his wife thought he was a fanatic deceived by the artifices of a demon.

"By his ecstatic visions" (says Moreau), "had he not become the dupe of his visions, whence sprung the first idea of his divine mission, and then had not these visions become the principal, if not the sole basis of his apostolic works, as well as the source of his audacity, and of his prophetic power over the ignorant and superstitious spirit of his countrymen?"[2]

It seems incredible that a religion which sways the minds of 200,000,000 of the human race at the present day should have no better foundation than the visions and reams of an epileptic. Religious systems must not, however, be judged of by the ordinary laws of reason; they must be estimated rather by their influence for good or evil on men's lives and on society.

The imagination may, when unfettered, during a state of trance, work upon what was during consciousness a constant theme of reflection, and elaborate therefrom ideas and theories pregnant with many moral truths, and, though vanity has, no doubt, influenced the actions of most of the so-called religious impostors, it has taken the direction of attempts to benefit their fellow-men, and to satisfy that craving which seems instinctive in the human mind to lean for aid and sympathy on something stronger and better than itself, to connect the present life with an eternal state of existence, and to attain a high standard of moral perfection.

Imperfect though the doctrines of such men as Swedenborg and Mohammed may be, they attempted to satisfy, and to a certain extent have succeeded in satisfying, those yearnings in many human beings, whom they have made, if not better, at least more contented with life than if left to the unbridled guidance of their own passions and impulses.

A millennium of reason may be in store for the human race, but the day is yet far distant; and we cannot afford at present to sneer at the credulity of our fellow-men, when in the latter half of the nineteenth century we hear of a learned bishop consecrating a cave where Bernadotte Soubarons, a girl of fourteen, saw the Virgin Mary, and read of thousands of pilgrims flocking to this sacred grotto in the year 1872 to worship with the most earnest convictions.

Need we wonder that the ignorant Arabs, 1,300 years ago, living, as far as a knowledge of Nature's laws was concerned, in a state of heathen darkness, should have been attracted to the Moslem faith, which, while it held out bright hopes for a future life, consorted well with their inclinations in the present.

The mere act of believing is, to most men, a source of happiness, and the happiness appears sometimes to be in the inverse ratio to the credibility of the thing believed in, as Moreau (de Tours) says: "Ils croient, mais pour croire, en tout état de cause, ils faut d'abord qu'ils ne comprennent pas."—Abstract from the Journal of Mental Science.

  1. "Life of Mohammed," by Washington Irving, p. 30.
  2. "Psychologie Morbide," par le Dr. J. Moreau (de Tours), p. 552.